For as long as most of us can remember, WordPress has used TinyMCE as an interface for content creation. The intention behind using such an editor was to make blogging accessible to all – no need to learn HTML; just get writing.
As the world’s most popular content management system, WordPress deserves the world’s greatest content creation interface. Not many would argue that TinyMCE deserves such recognition however.
In this article we’re going to explore the history of the WordPress text editor, its current incarnation, and what the future holds for content creation in WordPress. We’ll also explore what WordPress can learn from other en vogue content/blogging platforms.
Many moons ago, WordPress took a big step forwards by packaging a visual editor into its interface. Working with the team at TinyMCE, WordPress was now available to everyone – with or without HTML experience.
This new means of creating content led to an exponential rise in WordPress’ popularity, as suddenly anyone who had experience using a bog-standard word processor could now write and publish content to the web using (what was at the time) a relatively unknown content management system. Adding text, tables, images and hyperlinks became as easy as clicking a button, and the blogging world loved it.
TinyMCE was not without its issues, sometimes (often?) coming a cropper in various manners, but the editor continued to be refined and improved upon in subsequent releases. It hasn’t attained perfection to date, but continues to offer a solid solution for content creation.
Distraction Free Mode
Introduced with version 3.2, WordPress’ new distraction free mode (or ‘Zen mode’) enabled the user to remove just about everything from the screen to focus entirely on writing.
It pushed the editor to what one might typically refer to as ‘full screen mode’, melting away all of the buttons and toolbars that cluttered up the WordPress interface.
The writing process was as close to mimicking a Microsoft Word document as it would ever be (although WordPress devs would probably consider that an insult), and by removing all distractions, it allowed creativity to rule supreme. It also removed that sneaky Publish button, which I’m sure all of us have accidentally pressed at least once during our WordPress lives.
Currently on version 4.1, the TinyMCE editor has not experienced a major overhaul since 2.0. While there have been many small-ish tweaks and upgrades, the content creation interface has stayed pretty much the same for WordPress.
Which begs the question: is WordPress at risk of falling behind? Or perhaps even worse, is it already behind the times?
While the TinyMCE certainly enables anyone who can work a keyboard to create content, it does have its certain limitations.
For starters, what you see is not what you get. The editor interprets what you have written within the limitations set out in its stylesheet. Aspects such as your chosen theme dictate how your content actually looks, and although the editor’s stylesheet canbe edited, most people don’t have the time or ability to do so.
Then there’s the way in which TinyMCE handles HTML. It can’t handle content pasted from other apps for the most part (Google Docs being a notable example), and hardly offers an intuitive coding experience for those who do want to draft their pieces in HTML. (That said, there are plugin solutions for frustrated coders.)
Furthermore, we’ve been spoiled by alternatives (discussed below). For many, TinyMCE is so far away from the cutting edge as to be positively blunt.
The New Distraction Free Mode
We also have the updated distraction free mode, which has caused no small amount of consternation within the WordPress community (with yours truly among the unhappy).
The concept is still the same – essentially a full-screen editor to create content with no distractions.
The main problem is that it has actually ceased to become distraction-free, which renders its intended use somewhat redundant. What was once a haven of calm is now arguably more distracting than the standard text editor, because every time you move your mouse beyond the content area, the rest of the WordPress interface flashes back into view:
The Alternatives to WordPress as a Content Creation Platform
There are of course alternatives to WordPress when it comes to creating content.
Now I’m not for a minute going to suggest that you dump WordPress and move onto a competitor. While its content creation interface may not be the best out there, in my humble opinion, it is hands-down the best all-round solution for the majority of bloggers and webmasters. However, WordPress certainly could learn a thing or two from newer kids on the block.
Originating as a kickstarter campaign, open-source platform Ghost is quickly increasing in popularity after initially being released to the public in 2013.
The concept behind the platform was to strip blogging back to its essentials and just let people write. So what they currently have is very simple – a Markdown editor with a real-time preview on the same screen:
Ghost has essentially headed in the completely opposite direction to WordPress; a simple editor versus a full blown content management system. By removing the somewhat clunky interface, Ghost enables users to focus completely on their content.
One of the drawbacks of content creation in Ghost however, and why WordPress became and still is so popular, is the need to learn Markdown in order to use the platform. Markdown isn’t exactly difficult to learn and can probably be picked up within fifteen minutes if the user has limited experience with coding, but if you have never coded before, and don’t particularly want to learn how to, WordPress still reigns supreme.
Medium is, if possible, even more stripped-back than Ghost. The entire focus is on individual content creation, with no customization, color schemes or add-ons. Medium runs a very good true what you see is what you get editor that does pretty much what it says on the tin – as you type, you see the content exactly as it would be published:
The chaps over at Medium have achieved this by removing a lot of the power that other editors have, meaning you arguably don’t have as much control over your content. It’s perhaps a compromise of style over substance.
The consensus seems to be that people want a blogging platform that performs like Medium, but with the functionality and customization that comes with WordPress. Which is no mean feat.
The Actual Future
Looking at the release notes for WordPress 4.3 and 4.4, it seems that there are no major changes planned for the editor, with the developers preferring to work on the mobile experience (which is understandable).
However, there is a new front end editor plugin which should be coming to core at some point. It seems that the focus is definitely to improve the what you see is what you get experience rather than move to something such as Markdown, which would no doubt cause uproar.
Currently you have to create a post in the back end of WordPress, preview it, and then post it. Edits here and there inevitably compel you to preview more than once, leading to a lengthy cycle of edit, preview, and repeat. It’s a time-consuming process for the perfectionists out there, which is what the front end editor promises to eradicate.
The new editor will enable you to create pages directly from the front end of your site, so you can immediately see how the content will look within the context of your design. You could still navigate to the back end editor for more in-depth aspects such as SEO, categorizing and tagging, so there shouldn’t be any loss of functionality.
It wasn’t too long ago that the front end editor felt like a tangible dream, but as it stands, its integration into core could be quite some time away.
The Hoped-For Future
The attention that alternative blogging platforms such as Ghost and Medium are currently receiving arguably demonstrates that WordPress’ content creation functionality has its limitations. However, the fact that WordPress currently powers over 23% of the web implies that people would desperately like to see the elegance of newer content creation interfaces coupled with the workhorse power of WordPress.
A lot of us are dreaming of a future where dashboards cease to exist within the content creation process. WordPress’ distraction free mode fulfils this to a degree, but it is not without its flaws (especially since its latest incarnation), and doesn’t deliver a true what you see is what you get experience.
In the meantime, we pin our hopes on a half-abandoned plugin that was once imminently destined for core. I for one hope that it is resurrected soon, as I see the content creation interface as one of the most important elements of WordPress core.
The beauty of WordPress, and partly the reason for its popularity, is the fact that absolutely anyone with an Internet connection can use it.
However, we must not stop there and claim an outright victory for accessibility. WordPress remains a platform that has benefited from mass adoption, and we must strive to push it further in terms of its content creation interface and capabilities. The likes of Ghost and Medium serve to demonstrate that there are a lot of possibilities.
If the new front end editor becomes a part of core, and is as seamless as reports are suggesting it could be, we may just get the what you see is what you get experience that we’re are looking for. It will also pretty much guarantee WordPress’ place as (dare I say it) king in a land of subpar blogging platforms.